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INDIA BEATS

Mighty heart

SUBHA J. RAO

Palak Muchhal sings to give children with heart diseases another chance at life.

Photo: K. Ananthan

For a cause: Palak Muchhal.

WHILE her buddies binge on ice cream and take swigs off cola bottles, Palak Muchhal sips warm water. After all, she has a life-giving voice to protect. From age six, this curly-haired teenager has sung only for charity and helped raise more than Rs. 1.2 crores to fund the heart surgeries of 234 children.

Palak's giggles and excited speech belie her maturity and dedication to a noble mission. She does not stop with giving the money — she is present in the operation theatre when "her" child is being operated upon and chants the Bhagwad Gita. "In complicated cases, I sit close to the patient and recite the Nav Kaal mantra invoking the Gods," says Palak, now a sprightly 14-year-old.

Rare selflessness

Dr. Dhiraj Gandhi, cardio-thoracic and vascular surgeon, Bhandari Hospital, Indore, who has operated upon most of Palak's beneficiaries, says that her selflessness is a God-given gift. "She enters the operation theatre long before I do, offers moral support to patients and keeps them comfortable." And, never flinches during the surgery.

Her happiest moment, Palak recalls, was when she held a thumping heart in her tiny hands. That was also the moment when she realised the enormous responsibility she had taken up. Out went fruits like custard apple, jamun and guava from her diet. And the much loved imli khatai (tamarind sweets). And, a single scoop of butterscotch ice cream, her favourite, is savoured over a couple of days only once a year.

Palak, who has her own theatre gown in this hospital, shares a great rapport with her "doctor uncle". The hospital, on its part, subsidises treatment to her children and allows her to run an overdraft of up to Rs. 10,00,000.

Palak started singing for a cause during the Kargil conflict. All of six then, she went door-to-door to collect funds for the soldiers on the warfront. And her decision to use her voice to help others took root when she saw poor children cleaning train compartments using the clothes off their backs. "I thought of my relative comfort and wondered why these children should not have a life?"

Palak's parents further fuelled her desire to help others. "We are from a middle class family and my parents (Amita, a homemaker, and Rajkumar Muchhal, an accountant in a private firm) could have insisted that I retain some of the money I earned. They did not," she says. The only thing she gifts herself for her effort is a doll — she has so far collected 234 dolls, one each for the life she has saved.

Joining Palak on stage are her kid brother Palash (who helps children with kidney problems), child singer Anoushka and a band of part-time musicians.

Initial impetus

She was spurred to sing for children with heart defects after hearing about Indore-based Lokesh who needed urgent heart surgery. A street vendor's cart turned into Palak's stage and her voice got people to loosen their purse strings. "I thought I would have to sing at least in four places to collect enough money; luckily, people donated the entire amount in just one show," she recalls.

Before she could help Lokesh, Bangalore-based surgeon Dr. Devi Shetty operated on him for free. Palak was wondering what to do with the money she had collected for him when another poor family with an ill child sought help. While it was just co-incidental that the first few kids who sought help from her had heart ailments, Palak decided to help children with similar problems.

The last eight years have seen Palak travel the length and breadth of the country and tour foreign countries to keep her movement alive. Has she missed a normal childhood? "At times ... but then, it dawns on me that even if I lose my childhood, it's okay. Playing with friends is not more important than saving a life."

Palak has learnt to sing in 12 languages — Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Gujarathi, Marathi, Bengali, Sanskrit, Sindhi, English, Punjabi, Hindi and Malay. She learns a new song in every State or country she visits. On an average, she sings 40 songs in every concert, dubbed "Dil se dil tak", from ghazals to film songs to bhajans. Palak packs a lot of work into a day to ensure that the children waiting to undergo heart surgery (429 and counting) through the Palak Muchhal Heart Foundation get another shot at life. She soon hopes to build a hospital to treat these children.

Keeping in touch

Palak spends quality time with her beneficiaries during her birthday and Deepavali and writes to all of them regularly. For now, she has moved base to Mumbai, where she is training under composers Jatin and Lalit in playback singing.

Palak has met President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam a couple of times. "He always asks me to sing `Aye mere watan ke logon'," she recounts.

In the middle of all this, this Class X student of Queen's College, Indore, has managed decent scores too. When she is in school, she is like any other kid, says Nirmala Rao, her Principal, and adds, "She is a considerate human being, a great singer and a diligent student".

A clutch of honours, including the Rajiv Gandhi Award 2005 and Pogo Amazing Kids Award, later, what really delights Palak is when doctors tell her, "Badhai ho Palak! Tumhara bachcha bach gaya." (Congrats Palak! Your child is alive).

India Beats features stories of the unusual, the exotic and the extraordinary.

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